'Seafood fraud' widespread in Canada, says ocean advocacy group

A recent investigation, which tested seafood bought in Montreal, found more than a third of samples were not the species of fish advertised.

More than one-third of fish samples in Montreal were entirely different species than advertised

According to Oceana Canada, wild salmon is sometimes substituted with farmed Atlantic salmon. (CBC)

A recent investigation, which tested seafood bought in Montreal, found more than half of the samples were mislabelled, adding to mounting evidence that "Canada has a widespread and unchecked seafood fraud problem," according to an ocean conservation group.

The report, published today, is the most up-to-date look at what actually ends up on Canadians' dinner plates when they buy fish. 

Out of a total of 472 seafood samples the group has tested in the country between 2017 and 2019, 47 per cent were found to have been mislabelled.

Montreal is the sixth and latest city where advocacy group Oceana Canada has investigated fish mislabelling. This past July, the charity took 90 seafood samples from 50 grocery stores and restaurants across Montreal and sent them off to a lab for DNA testing. 

It discovered that 61 per cent were mislabelled in some way, and 34 per cent were an entirely different species than advertised. 

Not so wild salmon, snapper not as advertised 

"In most cases, we see a more expensive fish substituted with a less expensive species," said Sayara Thurston, seafood fraud campaigner with Oceana Canada. 

She recommends consumers always do their research, especially with these types of fish: 

  • Red snapper (often substituted with less expensive tilapia).
  • Anything advertised as "wild," such as wild salmon (often substituted with farmed Atlantic salmon). 
  • Tuna (often substituted with escolar).

When fish are not as advertised, there can be health impacts, as well as consequences for marine life, Thurston said. 

"One of the problems that we see with seafood fraud is that it allows illegally fished products to take on a new legal identity. Right now in Canada, it's very easy to sell a product into Canada. We ask very little of products that are imported here," she said. 

In Oceana Canada’s investigation, all of the samples of American red snapper tested were mislabelled. (Oceana/Jenn Hueting)

Oceana Canada said its Montreal research helps round out the portrait of fish mislabelling in Canada, which the group says has clearly not been dealt with. 

Widespread mislabelling

Previous findings from investigations in other Canadian cities include: 

  • 67 per cent of samples from Victoria were mislabelled.
  • 59 per cent of samples from Toronto were mislabelled.
  • 46 per cent of samples from Ottawa were mislabelled.
  • 38 per cent of samples from Halifax were mislabelled.
  • 26 per cent of samples from Vancouver were mislabelled.

Thurston said Oceana Canada doesn't name the stores or restaurants where the fraudulent fish was found, because the retailers are often unaware that what they're selling is not the real deal. 

"Businesses can, themselves, be victims of seafood fraud. Canadians should be vigilant and ask questions, but the real solution here is going to be a legislative one," she said. 

Oceana Canada is calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to require catch documentation for all domestic and imported seafood. They say that's in line with current European Union requirements. 

Call for traceability on seafood products

It's also asking the federal government to create what's called a "boat-to-plate traceability system" that would follow all seafood products through the supply chain, from where the fish are farmed or caught to the final point of sale. 

She said it's encouraging to see that it's an issue that has come up during the federal election campaign — the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP have all committed to acting on this issue in their election platforms.

For now, if consumers are worried what they're buying might not be as advertised, Thurston recommends asking retailers about the species of fish and where it comes from, and shopping at smaller, local businesses that know their supply chains well. 

The CFIA said it needs more time to analyze the investigation's findings before it can comment on the report. 

A statement from the government body acknowledged the work of Oceana Canada, in bringing attention to this issue, but added that food fraud occurs around the world.

CFIA said it continues to work to protect consumers from food misrepresentation by carrying out inspections and analyzing food samples. 


Jaela Bernstien


Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and the environment for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at